The Alzheimer’s Society (2012) estimates that more than 670,000 people in the UK are acting as primary carers for loved ones with dementia, but this is putting dangerous levels of pressure on families who are already under excessive strain according Cognitive Psychologist Dr Lynda Shaw.
Dr Shaw says: “Psychologists have charted the development of a growing child and their relationship with their parents for many years but there is little talk of the psychological effects of adult children becoming carers for their parent despite the huge strain on the carers which can affect their own mental state, finances, relationships, work and family. What is being underestimated is that the carer’s mental health is at risk and this depends on a myriad of factors such as their physical health, age, social support, level of resilience and cultural background.”
It is nothing new that we are expected to look after our elders across many cultures, but as we are living longer what is new is the extent which we need to do this whilst balancing an ever increasing complex lifestyle. The figures are staggering. The population of older people in the UK is increasing and is only set to continue so that by 2034, 23% of the population is projected to be aged 65 and over, compared to 18% aged under 16. Currently there are 800,000 people in the UK with dementia but it is thought this number is likely to be an underestimate. Three in five people will be carers at some point in their lives in the UK and carers save the state some £119 billion a year (Carers UK and the University of Leeds).
“Often people become carers for all the right reasons; they love their parent and want to support them as they were supported as a child. However, older people often need care around the clock and this wears the carer down. The carer may become exhausted, frustrated and even isolated from their normal social and working network. The effect can lead to high levels of stress and anxiety.”
So how can we help ourselves as carers? “Not being caught by surprise and being informed about the challenges and difficulties a loved one with dementia may face helps a carer with their role. The carer themselves having support and respite is crucial to being able to keep up the role as care-giver. Knowing that you are not alone and not being afraid to ask for help are also key.”
Shaw says that carers can feel overwhelmed by the responsibility and how they can meet the needs of their parent as well as the rest of their family. Being a full time carer for a loved one can take its toll both mentally and physically. Shaw advises carers should try not to feel guilt if they need to prioritise their own family or they need to enlist outside help because of their work or other commitments.
Tips for carers
- Having a team of carers, perhaps with you at the helm, can ensure you are giving the best care to your loved one. Create a rota so everyone knows what the routine will be and so that there are no blank times when your loved one is alone when they shouldn’t be.
- Talk to your family GP and ask about what help is available to you and your family and contact carers help groups to get further support.
- Talk to your own family and discuss the issues so that everyone including your own children know what the situation is and how things may need to change.
- Remember to enjoy spending time with your loved one. Laughing uses up the same amount of energy as crying. Try to keep upbeat and talk about what is happening outside of your caring role and about fun things you did together and perhaps can still do.
- Get respite when you can. If you are exhausted you won’t be of use to anyone and then the whole house of cards will come tumbling down.